Tobias Richardson

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					un Supplement: Tobias Richardson

                                                                                           All images: Tobias Richardson
                                                                                24HR Art front window, habitat installation
                                                                                                            250 x 250cm
                                                                                  Images courtesy the artist & 24HR Art
                                                                                          Above: Welcome (detail), 2005
                                                                                                Photo credit: Max Bowden

Tobias Richardson
24HR Art, Northern Territory Centre for Contemporary Art
(Box Set series)
16 September – 22 October 2005
Article by Hayley West

Set against the backdrop of a utopian South American jungle,        outside of the often-intimidating gallery sanctum. Richardson
ten live cane toads spent their final blissful weeks in the front   also managed a mammoth ten interviews on local and
window of a Darwin art gallery. Looking majestic in their           national radio, making up for the lack of written reviews in
confidence, the toads seemed oblivious to the slanderous            Darwin that would keep the public informed. As expected,
debate that existed on the other side of the glass.                 the focus of the interviews was on the politics and science
                                                                    of the toad’s imminent arrival, rather than the work’s visual
It has taken cane toads seventy years to reach Darwin and           elements.
their arrival is a source of loathing laced with excitement for
locals. Consequently, the public interest in Welcome was            One of the successes of Welcome was the shifting attitude
enormous. The Box Set – a small exhibition space in the             of people towards these animals over time. The piece existed
front window of 24HR Art – allowed for unlimited viewing            for five weeks, allowing people to revisit and follow the
and twice weekly feeding sessions ensured frequent visits           progression of individual toads and to develop relationships
by the curious and the repulsed. Welcome was an exhibition          with them. It was important for Richardson that the gallery
for Darwinians, enabling them to view and consider the work         staff became involved in caring for the toads. It gradually

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                                                                                            un Supplement: Tobias Richardson

   Above: Toads at home, 2005
   24HR Art front window, habitat installation detail
   Photo credit: Fiona Morrison

became apparent that the staff and director genuinely wanted   to be anthropocentric when it comes to nature, judging
to nurture and even befriend these beasts. And testament to    nature’s values by aesthetics rather than function, the
Richardson’s own sympathetic and knowledgeable actions,        difference between native and introduced often equates
Frog Watch North (the leading cane toad control in the NT)     to good and bad, beautiful and ugly. Richardson’s question
was asked to support the work. The professional treatment      for viewers, then, was: How is ugliness qualified? Once it
and eventual humane disposal of the toads was crucial in       became obvious that the toad had failed in it’s mission to
opposing the widespread callous killing methods that exist     eradicate the cane beetle, it was instantly despised and
in this country.                                               deemed deserving of a torturous death. Yet, ironically, the
                                                               toads came equipped with many of the traits of a similarly
Consequently the cane toads became a popular attraction.       successful species: Homo sapiens. Both thrive in Australia
Viewers witnessed the gorging of cockroaches, monitored        and, like humans, toads have a titanic fecundity, occupying
the toads’ growth and learnt about these maligned              and exploiting almost any niche, colonising the globe with a
amphibians. Welcome was a spectacle for the people.            vigorous drive, out-competing other organisms and generally
On opening night, punters were horrified to watch one of       running amuck.
the toads shed its own skin, carefully peel it off and then
systematically consume it. It was one of the most grotesque    Inside the gallery two images plastered on the wall reinforced
events I have ever witnessed.                                  the sense of anthropomorphism, innocence and violence:
                                                               an image of an icefield soaked in the blood of a freshly
Richardson knows that the consensus is that cane toads         bludgeoned white seal pup, set beside a picture of Schapelle
are ugly and he has played on this belief. As humans tend      Corby, tearful in her distress. Confronted with these familiar

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un Supplement: Tobias Richardson

   Above: Welcome, 2005
   24HR Art front window, habitat installation view
   Photo credit: Fiona Morrison

and emotional images, we questioned our perception of            Ultimately, Welcome arrived at a time when many are
what innocence actually is. Would we be so troubled if the       unwelcome. It was a subtle and subversive political piece
baby seal and Schapelle were brown and warty?                    that questions the concept of acceptance. This is not an
                                                                 acceptance of the introduction of these animals – or their
The lighting of the toads from above compounded this             invasion and impact on the environment – but a realisation
uncertainty, allowing them an aura of regal halos at any         that they are living things finding themselves in the wrong
time of day or night. This effect, together with the painterly   place at the wrong time.
diorama that successfully immersed viewers in a lush tropical
jungle, also tied Welcome back to classic museum displays
and their parallel with more recent displays of art. Both
environments involve viewing, decoding, learning, narratives
and presenting materials; in short, art borrowing from
science and science borrowing from art.                          Hayley West is an artist and arts worker living in Darwin,
                                                                 working closely with Tobias in the local arts community.

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